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How to Build Muscle In the Most Efficient Way Possible

woman doing bench pressYou’re wasting your time in the gym. Big arms do not come from barbell curls or triceps pushdowns. Great legs don’t come from leg extensions and leg curls. The key to efficiently building quality muscle is to ditch the isolation exercises and start replacing them with compound exercises.

Why are Compound Exercises the Best for Building Muscle?

Compound exercises work many muscle groups at one time. Isolation exercises, on the other hand, work a single muscle. Because of this, you can get a greater amount of work done in a shorter amount of time using compound exercises.

In addition, since compound exercises work several muscle groups at once, they help you improve your insulin sensitivity to a greater degree. By depleting glycogen stores in several muscles, you enable your body to keep insulin levels under control the rest of the day so that fatty acid mobilization can occur.

Compound exercises also cause a positive hormonal response that is beneficial for building muscle and burning fat. Hormones like testosterone and growth hormone are boosted in response to a set of intense squats.

Doing a set of squats will activate every muscle from head to toe. It forces you to have a high-intensity workout, which is key for both muscle building and fat loss.

Big arms are not made by doing curls, they are made through heaving rowing and pressing movements. A 300-400 pound bench press is going to do more for your arms than any triceps kickbacks or pushdown will do.

The same goes for your legs. You can sit on the leg extension machine trying to build great quads, and you might get a great pump and burn from it, but nothing is going to build great legs like squats will.

Are All Isolation Exercises Worthless?

No. Isolation exercises have their place, as you will soon see. However, they should not be the core of your workout. You will build all the muscle you need, and in a faster amount of time, if you would just stick to the core compound exercises.

When are isolation exercises effective? Two of the best times to use them are when you’re trying to work around an injury, or when you are trying to isolate a lagging body part (muscle imbalance).

Using isolation exercises when you’re injured allows you to continue exercising without aggravating your injury. For example, if you have an injured back, doing bent over rows is going to be detrimental to your recovery efforts. However, barbell curls will still allow you to train your arms.

The same goes for when you want to bring up a lagging body part. Isolation exercises let you hone in on one particular muscle without stimulating others.

Best Compound Exercises

The list of compound exercises is long, but there are a dozen or so core movements that you can incorporate that will make a big impact. These core movements also have several variations to them.

You can change the resistance curve by adding bands or chains, changing hand positioning to target slightly different muscles, changing angles, or by swapping out barbells for dumbbells. You can also do their bodyweight versions.

Here’s a list of compound exercises you should consider adding into your workout program:

  • Bench Press
  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Pullups
  • Good Mornings
  • Overhead Press
  • Barbell Rows
  • Front Squats
  • Incline Press
  • Stiff Legged Deadlifts

Whether you’re a male or female, these principles still apply. There is no best exercise for a girl or best exercise for a guy. Muscle is muscle, and it grows the same regardless of gender. Men might have an easier time putting on muscle because of their hormonal profile, but that just makes it even more important that women take advantage of compound exercises.

As you put together your exercise program, make sure compound exercises form the core of your program. Isolation exercises are fun and add variety to your workouts, but only compound exercises can provide you with the resistance and intensity necessary to efficiently build muscle.

  • Paul

    When I used to step in the gym as a Personal Trainer I used to want to let people know how they were wasting their time doing isolation exercises. I would see guys constantly doing barbell curls or other such exercises. I have known the benefits of compound exercises and that is how I train and I have my clients train. You made some great points about the importance of compound exercises. I was wondering why you left the push up out of the compound exercises. I have always thought the push up is one of the best upper body exercises one can do.

    • Coach Calorie

      Hey Paul, I would consider the pushup a variation of the bench press. The only problem I see with it is that it becomes difficult to add resistance.

      • Carla

        You could put a weight on your back for resistance but would need help to do that.

      • Martina

        Yeah, but it strengthens your core, bench press doesn’t really do that!!!

    • Tom Parker

      I wouldn’t go as far as saying isolation exercises are a waste of time. Whilst I agree you should definitely focus most of your energy on compound exercises, I find that towards the end of my workout I don’t have the strength to carry on doing heavy compound exercises but still have a bit of strength left over to do some lighter isolation exercises. For example, on my upper back day once I can no longer do any more lat pulldowns or bent over rows, I find it’s effective to finish off my arms with a few sets of bicep curls.


      • Michael Landers

        Hi Tom, finishing off your biceps after a back session implies that they have something left to give at the end which to me may mean you could have gone slightly heavier on the pulling movements for back and nailed your biceps at the same time?

  • Rosy Saadeh

    Is it just me or did you omit the walking lunge?

    • Coach Calorie

      The lunge can be an effective compound movement. I consider it a variation of the squat – a lower body push movement. Thanks for the add.

  • Alex

    Hi Tony! As always, great article…what are your thoughts on things like a squat to bicep curl or squat to swimmer’s press…would you consider these to be compound exercises?

  • Coach Calorie

    Sure. They involve the whole body.

  • Coach Calorie

    It definitely does to a degree, but squats and deadlifts definitely do. I don’t do pushups for my core. I do them for upper body strength in my chest, triceps and delts.

  • Sandy Ellis

    I dont know I got some nice biceps and triceps from doing curls and extentions, I also do compounds exercises

    • Coach Calorie

      They work but are unnecessary until you are at a more advanced level.

  • Corey Watson

    Hey Tony
    I’ve been at the gym 2 years made some great gains at the start but now I seem to be stuck, I do a 4 day split, should I just go back to a full body routine made up of compound exercises?

    • Tony Schober

      Hi Corey, look into conjugated periodization. Google it. It’s my preferred method of consistently making strength gains.

  • Lisa

    What are ‘Good Mornings’?

    • Tony Schober

      Go to and search. You will find free exercise instruction there.